A sweeping police reform package that bans chokeholds and aims to combat racial profiling was passed by the United States House of Representatives on Wednesday, days before the trial in the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, kicks off.
The bill, which passed 220-212 votes late on Wednesday, was named after Floyd, whose deadly encounter with police in Minnesota in May of last year sparked nationwide racial justice protests.
Floyd died aged 46 when then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on the victim’s neck for more than eight minutes.
“Nearly one year ago, George Floyd gasped his last words, ‘I can’t breathe’, and ignited a nationwide reckoning on the racial injustice and police brutality in America,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the vote.
“This legislation will not erase centuries of systemic racism and excessive policing in America,” but it takes a “tremendous step” towards stopping the violence and improving relations between law enforcement and communities they serve, she added.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has the support of President Joe Biden but is expected to face hurdles in the US Senate, where the Democratic party holds a razor-thin majority.
It would also ban “qualified immunity” for police, policies that shield on-duty officers from being held personally accountable in civil rights lawsuits if their conduct does not explicitly break the law.
The bill passed mostly along party lines, with just one Republican supporting it and two Democrats opposing it.
Police reform has previously caused inter-party conflict for Democrats, with some blaming calls by some progressives to “defund the police” for the party’s losses in the chamber during the 2020 election. The bill does not slash police funding.
Biden told legislators on Wednesday that he “strongly” supports the House version of the bill, although the legislation will likely be watered down in the 100-member Senate, where Democrats hold 50 seats. Sixty votes will be needed there to pass the legislation.
A previous version of the bill had passed the House last year but languished in the then Republican-controlled Senate.
Floyd’s family heralded the House vote in a statement from their lawyers.
“This represents a major step forward to reform the relationship between police officers and communities of color and impose accountability on law enforcement officers,” lawyers Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci said.
The passage comes as the trial for officer Derek Chauvin, who was captured on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, is set to begin on Monday.
Chauvin, who is being tried separately from the three other officers charged in Floyd’s death, faces second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges.
During debate on the bill on Wednesday, Representative Ilhan Omar, who represents the area where Floyd was killed, said residents are still reeling from the incident.
“My city is not an outlier, but rather an example of the inequalities our country has struggled with for centuries,” she said, asking if her colleagues will “have the moral courage to pursue justice and secure meaningful change?”